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Families Cope With Rising College Costs in Strategic Ways

To deal with college expenses in this uncertain economic climate, a new survey reveals families are turning to lower-cost schools and seeking more financial aid. Students are also increasingly living at home and going to college part time. As a result, the average family reported spending 9 percent less on college in 2010-11 than the previous year.

Sallie Mae, the financial-services company that specializes in education savings vehicles, released its fourth annual national survey, "How America Pays for College 2011" yesterday.

More families took advantage of grants and scholarships to lower the overall cost of college. Sallie Mae found the proportion of families that used grants increased from 30 percent last year to 46 this year. And while grants and scholarships made up 23 percent of the total cost of college in 2010, they comprised 33 percent in 2011.

Still, parent contributions remain the most heavily relied on source of funding at 37 percent of total college expenses—down from 47 percent in 2010.

The rise in grant usage occurred mainly among middle-income families, with 49 percent reporting that they used grants in 2011, up from 30 percent in 2010. There were also more high-income families using grants: 26 percent in 2011 compared with 12 percent in 2010, the survey found.

Families filing for the Free Application for Federal Student Aid increased from 72 percent to 80 percent from last year's survey to this year's, with most of the growth coming from middle- and high-income families.

The report reveals big shifts in college costs—depending on family income. Students from high-income families reported paying $25,760 on average in 2011, 18 percent less than the $31,245 they paid in 2010. For middle-income families, the total fell from $22,628 in 2010 to $21,347. However, low-income families reported an increase in their contribution, from $17,404 in 2010 to $19,888 in this year's survey.

For low-income families, there have been no significant changes in grant or scholarship usage rates; however, there was a slight increase in the average amount contributed from scholarships. This underscores the Education Trust's findings in June that poor students pay a disproportionate amount of their income for college compared with their wealthy peers.

A growing number of respondents in the Sallie Mae survey are low income. In 2008, low-income groups represented 20 percent of the sample. In 2009, it was 19 percent, 23 percent in 2010, and 32 percent in 2011.

In line with other recent polls on the value of college, the Sallie Mae survey shows that 70 percent of students and parents strongly agreed that college is essential for earning more over the course of a student's future career, compared with 59 percent in 2010.

While parents still have a high degree of concern about their economic situation and the rising cost of college tuition remains, this year's report marks the first time parents across all income levels report decreased concern about the future than in previous years. Perhaps, the report authors note, this reduced worry may be linked to the choices families are making to curb college costs.

Ipsos conducted the national telephone survey for Sallie Mae, interviewing 1,611 individuals: 798 parents of 18- to 24-year-old undergraduate students and 813 18- to 24-year-old undergraduate students.


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